Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 22, 2020

Donald Trump’s enablers at Stanford University

Filed under: Academia,COVID-19 — louisproyect @ 6:13 pm

Leland Stanford

Some of America’s most prestigious universities were created and named after robber barons. Carnegie-Mellon was founded by Andrew Carnegie in 1900, just 11 years after the steel magnate gave the green light to Pinkerton for an armed assault on the strikers in Homestead. Then there is Duke University, named in honor of James Duke, the tobacco boss who left millions in an early grave from cancer, heart disease and emphysema. Equally prestigious is Stanford University that got its name from Leland Stanford, a railroad tycoon.

Like other robber barons, Stanford launched a political career. He became governor of California in 1862 and used his power to persecute the Chinese. In a speech made early in his career, he made Donald Trump look like Bernie Sanders by comparison:

To my mind it is clear, that the settlement among us of an inferior race is to be discouraged by every legitimate means. Asia, with her numberless millions, sends to our shores the dregs of her population. Large numbers of this class are already here; and, unless we do something early to check their immigration, the question, which of the two tides of immigration, meeting upon the shores of the Pacific, shall be turned back, will be forced upon our consideration, when far more difficult than now of disposal. There can be no doubt but that the presence among us of numbers of degraded and distinct people must exercise a deleterious influence upon the superior race, and to a certain extent, repel desirable immigration.

Stanford is infamous for its Hoover Institution of War, Revolution, and Peace, a rightwing think-tank founded in 1919 by Stanford alumnus Herbert Hoover. The Hoover Institution was in the news recently when one of its fellows, an NYU law professor named Richard Epstein, predicted that there would be no more than 500 deaths from COVID-19 in the USA. In a must-read interview with Epstein by New Yorker Magazine’s Isaac Chotiner, the cocky and ill-informed lawyer was twisted into a pretzel, at one point stating, “You know nothing about the subject but are so confident that you’re going to say that I’m a crackpot.” I am not that much into Freud, but this sounds like a classic example of projection.

Despite having qualifications far in advance of Richard Epstein’s, some Stanford epidemiologists have been in the news making Donald Trump talking points. John Ioannidis, an epidemiologist and co-director of Stanford’s Meta-Research Innovation Center, caught the eye of the NY Times’s Thomas Friedman who cited him an op-ed piece questioning the seriousness of the pandemic. Friedman noted that the Stanford expert believed that we still do not have a firm grasp of the population-wide fatality rate of coronavirus. It might only be one percent and could even be lower. That being the case, Ioannidis warned:

If that is the true rate locking down the world with potentially tremendous social and financial consequences may be totally irrational. It’s like an elephant being attacked by a house cat. Frustrated and trying to avoid the cat, the elephant accidentally jumps off a cliff and dies.

Ioannidis had co-thinkers at Stanford. In a March 24 Wall Street Journal op-ed piece by Stanford professors Eran Bendavid and Jay Bhattacharya that was widely circulated on pro-Trump websites, you got the same analysis as Ioannidis. They wrote, “A universal quarantine may not be worth the costs it imposes on the economy, community and individual mental and physical health. We should undertake immediate steps to evaluate the empirical basis of the current lockdowns.”

Ioannidis, Bendavid and Bhattacharya were in the news again this week. They conducted a blood survey of residents in Santa Clara County and discovered that between 2.49% and 4.16% of may have coronavirus antibodies. The good news, as far as they were concerned, was that the infection fatality rate was between 0.12% and 0.2%. So, what’s to worry?

Another jackass from the Hoover Institution couldn’t wait to get the findings circulated on pro-Trump media. Hoover fellow Victor Davis Hanson, even more cocksure and reactionary than Richard Epstein, got in touch with Rush Limbaugh to give him the good news. From the moron’s website:

Folks, I was minding my own business on Friday, and I got a flag email from my friend Victor Davis Hanson, and it was a preliminary report on Stanford University’s research in Santa Clara County. It is bombshell. It was the prepublication. The file that he sent me was actually the preprint version, which is pre-peer review.

But here is the take-away paragraph from the research. It suggests that one county’s cases, Santa Clara, California — which, by the way, is where the 49ers are. For those of you who know geography by your sports teams, Santa Clara is where the 49ers stadium is, 49er training complex. They’re not in San Francisco anymore. “One county’s cases could be more than double the entire state’s reported cases by testing.

“Even a 1% to 4% existing positives to the virus in a population, completely overturn the case-to-fatality rates. In this case, the figures work out to a mortality rate of 0.1%, not 1%, not 2%, not 4%, not 5% — 0.1% at the high, and the low end, 0.02%.” That would be like a normal or bad flu year. One to two per thousand dying in the population. Remember, when we started, the models here that everybody swore by which gave us the lockdown policy were predicting four to one dying per hundred — per hundred, not thousand.

Writing for Slate, Jane Hu took apart both Victor Davis Hanson and the scientists he relied on to spread his Trumpist talking points:

On Tuesday, KSBW, a news station in Monterey, California, aired a story about California’s potential “herd immunity” to the novel coronavirus. The piece opens by discussing a new study from Stanford Medicine in which researchers are conducting blood tests that detect antibodies, which can show whether an individual has or previously had COVID-19. The reporter then goes on to cite Victor Davis Hanson, a Stanford-affiliated source who advances the theory that COVID-19 might have actually begun spreading in California in fall 2019. “[Stanford’s] data could help to prove COVID-19 arrived undetected in California much earlier than previously thought,” KSBW reported.

The piece has spread widely. An accompanying web story posted to the TV station’s website has been shared more than 58,300 times, and has also been picked up by SFGate. The theory is appealing to some, particularly those who had respiratory illnesses in late 2019 that they now believe could’ve been COVID-19. In their minds, that might mean they have some immunity to the virus—and if a large portion of Americans have some immunity, we can begin our move out of lockdown. But that theory has no scientific basis, and it spreads dangerous misinformation.

Let’s start with the facts. I reached out to Stanford Medicine to try to understand the goals of its antibody test, and how it relates to Hanson’s fall 2019 theory. The short answer on the latter is that it doesn’t. “Our research does not suggest that the virus was here that early,” says Lisa Kim of Stanford’s media relations team.

Neither does anyone else’s, it appears. “There is zero probability [SARS-CoV-2] was circulating in fall 2019,” tweeted Trevor Bedford, a computational biologist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center who has been tracking SARS-CoV-2’s genetic code as it has spread. Allison Black, a genomic epidemiologist working in Bedford’s lab, says this is apparent from researchers’ data. As the virus spreads, it also mutates, much like the way words change in a game of Telephone. By sequencing the virus’s genome from different individual samples, researchers can track strains of the coronavirus back to its origins. They have been continually updating their findings on Nextstrain. (In case you’re wondering, the strains have nothing to do with severity of illness. They’re simply a way to track the virus’s mutations over time.)

Richard Neher, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Basel in Switzerland, told the Scientist that Nextstrain researchers’ work has tracked the virus back to a single source “somewhere between mid-November and early December,” which then spread in China. The earliest cases in the U.S. appeared in January 2020, according to Nextstrain’s sequencing work. Washington state, where the first known COVID-19 case in the U.S. was identified, has at least six strains. A similar analysis of California’s coronavirus cases—which has yet to be peer-reviewed—identified at least eight strains in the state, suggesting transmission from Washington state, New York, Europe, and China.

If genomics isn’t your thing, consider this: If the virus had arrived earlier, we would have known. Humans have no natural immunity to this new virus, which is why it’s spreading quickly, infecting millions and killing tens of thousands. That’s evident in what’s going on in New York right now, says Black. “If it had arrived in fall of 2019, and we were all living our lives as normal, we would’ve had New York back in fall of 2019,” she says. There’s no reason why this virus would have spread undetected for months before wreaking the havoc it has.

This is not the end of the controversy. Besides the Slate article, there is a wave of criticism directed at the study from professionals in the field as reported in the Mercury News.

But over the weekend, some of the nation’s top number crunchers said their extrapolation of the results rests on a flimsy foundation.

They contended the Stanford analysis is troubled because it draws sweeping conclusions based on statistically rare events, and is rife with sampling and statistical imperfections.

Gelman of Columbia University called the conclusions “some numbers that were essentially the product of a statistical error.”

“They’re the kind of screw-ups that happen if you want to leap out with an exciting finding,” he wrote, “and you don’t look too carefully at what you might have done wrong.”

From the lab of Erik van Nimwegen of the University of Basel came this: “Loud sobbing reported from under Reverend Bayes’ grave stone,” referring to a famed statistician. “Seriously, I might use this as an example in my class to show how NOT to do statistics.”

“Do NOT interpret this study as an accurate estimate of the fraction of population exposed,” wrote Marm Kilpatrick, an infectious disease researcher at the University of California Santa Cruz. “Authors have made no efforts to deal with clearly known biases and whole study design is problematic.”

My advice is to visit the Stanford University Board of Trustees page where you will get a good idea of who runs the place. It is filled with hedge fund operators, real estate developers, silicon valley bosses, private equity, et al. If we ever cut off the head of the beast that is responsible for the mess we are in right now, one of the first things we’ll have to do is make all universities public and fund them properly. Right now, they are wholly owned subsidiaries of corporate American and in this instance glaringly so.

5 Comments »

  1. […] Source: Donald Trump’s enablers at Stanford University | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist […]

    Pingback by Donald Trump’s enablers at Stanford University  – R48G: last and first men — April 22, 2020 @ 6:22 pm

  2. Slightly off topic, here’s something I just saw and I sure wish someone would make some attempt to explain what the hell is going on.

    Comment by freetofu — April 23, 2020 @ 12:31 am

  3. Jo, there was some discussion of this by some writers (mostly professionally involved in number crunching) on the admittedly “liberal” Daily Kos website. The number of tests are so inadequate that they only cover people coming for treatment so that the sampling is skewed. Simply put: Confirmed Cases equals about Total Tests divided by 5. Almost every country on earth missed the opportunity to aggressively trace contacts and contain the outbreak to a few regions and over a short time. The best known exception is New Zealand.

    Comment by Richard Brand — April 23, 2020 @ 11:48 am

  4. Sorry I should have at least given one reference to the above:

    https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2020/4/22/1939489/-Authors-of-Santa-Clara-COVID-19-study-owe-us-all-an-apology-according-to-noted-statistician

    Comment by Richard Brand — April 23, 2020 @ 1:01 pm

  5. Thanks. I’m not Joe though. If you click on that tweet you’ll see he’s a researcher with Oxford’s Our World In Data. It is pretty amazing to me that the data fit so close to a perfectly straight line.

    Comment by freetofu — April 23, 2020 @ 5:51 pm


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